Joel Pritchard and several friends incorporate Pickle Ball Inc., to promote the new sport they invented in 1965 at Pritchard's Bainbridge Island cabin, on February 13, 1968.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 11/11/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20195

On February 13, 1968, future U.S. Representative and Washington Lieutenant Governor Joel Pritchard (1925-1997) and several friends file articles of incorporation for Pickle Ball Inc., a corporation intended to promote the new sport they invented three years earlier at Pritchard's Bainbridge Island cabin. One summer afternoon in 1965 the kids were bored and said they had nothing to do, so Pritchard vowed to create a new game they could play on the cabin's badminton court. Pritchard, with friends and neighbors William Bell and Barney McCallum, lowered the net, got out some paddleball paddles, and borrowed a whiffle-type ball. Over the next weeks they invented rules and designed better paddles, creating a cross between badminton and tennis, fast and fun but easy enough for everyone in the family to play. It soon became the rage on Bainbridge Island and began to spread, including to Olympia where Pritchard introduced it to fellow legislators. Over the years pickleball will spread across the country and around the world, with some 4,000 pickleball courts in North America, not counting numerous backyard courts, like that original one on Bainbridge Island.

Invention

In the summer of 1965, Joel Pritchard was a veteran representative in the Washington State Legislature and had just helped engineer a winning gubernatorial race for his friend and fellow Republican Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925). Pritchard would go on to become a six-term U.S. Representative from Seattle and a two-term lieutenant governor.

However that summer he, Bill Bell -- the brother of Nancy Bell Evans (b. 1933) and so Governor Evans's brother-in-law -- and Barney McCallum were obsessed with their game-in-the-making. When Pritchard's children had complained they were bored, he told them that as a kid, he would invent games and said, "I can make up a game" ("Oral History," 402). When they first came up with the idea, the friends left the net at badminton height and volleyed the ball back and forth in the air. But they soon discovered two important things. First, the plastic ball bounced well off of a hard surface. Second, in Pritchard's words, "You've got to be able to hit the ball hard. Nobody plays golf to putt" ("Oral History," 402). So they lowered the net to 36 inches and started smashing shots tennis style. The sport of pickleball (sometimes spelled Pickle-Ball) was born.

The exact date is unknown -- the memories of the inventors are vague on the subject. Pritchard himself once said it was in summer 1963, and Joan Pritchard, Joel's wife at the time, wrote that it was the summer of 1966. However, in most accounts both Barney McCallum and Joel Pritchard narrowed it down to July-August 1965, which is the date that the USA Pickleball Association and Pickle-Ball Inc. now specify as the correct date.

The origins of the name are also in dispute. Joan Pritchard wrote in a 2008 newspaper column that she had mentioned that the hybrid nature of the game reminded her of the "Pickle Boat" in the sport of crew, where "oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats" (Baurick). McCallum claimed it stemmed from him telling his opponents, "I've got you in a pickle" (Smith). Pritchard said they just needed a "nutty name" ("Oral History," 402), and he told a reporter that "tenny pong" was under consideration at one point (Smith). The widely spread notion that the game was named after Pickles, the Pritchard family dog, was debunked by Pritchard, who said the dog came later and "was named after the game" -- although plenty of people advised him to stick to the other story because it "works better" ("Oral History," 402).

The inventors said they deliberately crafted the rules so that it would be fun for all ages, with no height advantage for adults. For this reason, and because the court was small enough to fit in backyards, on driveways, or even indoors, it caught on quickly. Soon it was being played by people up and down Bainbridge Island, the eastern Kitsap County island a short ferry ride across Puget Sound from downtown Seattle where at the time many Seattle families, like the Pritchards, had summer homes. In 1967, a neighbor on Bainbridge Island paved the first permanent pickleball court. The sport also caught on in Olympia, where Pritchard introduced it to Dan Evans and future U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (b. 1928). Gorton built pickleball courts in both of his homes, in Olympia and Whidbey Island. U.S. Representative Norm Dicks (b. 1940) and his wife built what Suzie Dicks called "the first outdoor Pickle-Ball court in the District of Columbia" ("Oral History," 403). Nancy Evans said "We all got really pretty good at pickleball," but Pritchard "was very good -- Joel was a good athlete" ("Nancy Evans," 130).

Incorporation

On February 13, 1968, Pritchard and several friends, including David McCallum, Barney's son, filed articles of incorporation for Pickle Ball Inc. (later called Pickle-Ball Inc.), "to develop the game of Pickle Ball and to sell and promote said game in a lawful manner" ("Articles of Incorporation"). However, Pickle Ball Inc. did not file its first Annual Report until August 3, 1972 (now with Bell as one of the directors), and Pritchard and others specified 1972 as the year the business actually got underway ("Domestic Corporation Annual Report)".

In 1974, financial disclosure statements revealed that Pritchard was president of Pickle-Ball Inc., "a firm with net assets under $1,500" (Herrington). Pritchard later told a reporter that the company was profitable, "but we've never taken a dime out of it" (Lyons). In 1976, Tennis magazine called it "America's newest racquet sport" ("History of the Game"). That same year, the first known pickleball tournament was held in Tukwila. In 1984, the USA Pickleball Association was formed and by 1990 courts existed in all 50 states.

Over the years, the sport has found a niche in elementary school physical-education programs and at retirement centers. One Florida retirement community has 36 courts. It can be played indoors or out, on almost any hard surface. It has also spread internationally to Europe and Asia. Pritchard continued to play and promote pickleball, and toward the end of his life, he traveled to Thailand to play pickleball with a group of enthusiasts there.

Pritchard accrued a long list of weighty accomplishments as a politician, yet in some circles he remains best known for pickleball. And that would not have bothered him, according to his daughter, Peggy Pritchard-Olson, who recounted her father's words at a party in his honor just before he died in 1997. "He said that out of all the things he'd done in his life, he was most proud of that game. It's made such a lasting impression on so many people. It's made people healthy and happy. It's been growing for 40 years. It may last forever" ("Real Legacy").


Sources:

"Joel M. Pritchard, An Oral History," Washington State Legislature website accessed November 7, 2016 (http://app.leg.wa.gov/oralhistory/pritchard/); " Nancy Evans: First-rate First Lady," Washington Secretary of State website accessed November 7, 2016 (https://www.sos.wa.gov/legacy/stories/nancy-evans/pdf/complete.pdf); John C. Hughes, Slade Gorton: A Half Century in Politics (Olympia: Office of the Secretary of State, 2011), copy available at Washington Secretary of State website accessed November 7, 2016 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/oralhistories/SladeGorton/pdf/complete.pdf); "History of the Game," USA Pickleball Association website accessed November 7, 2016 (http://www.usapa.org/history-of-the-game/); "Joel Pritchard's Real Legacy? It's Pickleball," Bainbridge Island Review, June 9, 2008 (http://www.bainbridgereview.com/news/19691454.html); Tristan Baurick, "The Doggone Lies About Pickleball," January 16, 2009, Bainbridge Conversation blog accessed November 11, 2016 (http://pugetsoundblogs.com/bainbridge-conversation/2009/01/16/the-doggone-lies-about-pickleball/); "How Pickle-Ball Came To Be," Pickle-Ball website accessed November 7, 2016 (http://pickleball.com/pages/history); Gil Lyons, "Pickle-Ball: Founders of Game Say Paddle Sport Simply Is a Barrel of Fun," The Seattle Times, August 24, 1990 (www.seattletimes.com); Glenn Nelson, "This Game's A Dilly!," The Seattle Times, July 1, 1981, p. D-7; Craig Smith, "Bored Kids, Ingenious Dads: Pickle-Ball Born!," Ibid., March 8, 1979, p. E-8; Gregg Herrington, "Jackson Donated $40,000 in Speech Fees," Ibid, February 5, 1974, p. A-2; "Articles of Incorporation of Pickle Ball Inc.," filed with the Washington Secretary of State, February 13, 1968, copy available at Washington State Digital Archives website accessed November 7, 2016 (https://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/DigitalObject/View/23C47D174F4114F4B275C49CD67E0EBD/2); "Domestic Corporation Annual Report," filed with the Washington Secretary of State, August 3, 1972, copy available at Washington State Digital Archives website accessed November 7, 2016 (https://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/DigitalObject/View/BE5BFBCE59AF94307E7204A0E08B55A9).


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